Why Churches can not care for the poor alone

Most people understand why churches cannot do all the work for caring for the poor themselves. But there seems to be a growing number of Evangelicals who want to strip the government of things like food stamps and disability altogether and make churches do the job. Here’s my response:

You seem to believe that cuts should be made in government programs for the poor and more investment made in charitable organizations and churches. Tax dollars should be spent not for the poor but on other things, and then tithes should be given for the benefit of the poor. Well, firstly that idea assumes that government has no real responsibility for the poor. Secondly, it assumes that churches and charitable organizations can easily fill in the gap in needed services.

In my limited experience I see that neither government, nor churches, nor charitable entities of whatever stripe have enough in funds to fill in the cracks in the current social safety net system. People who argue that the system works just fine must have a pretty twisted view of what “just fine” is. As one media/political liaison for a local large church/charity said recently, “This is America and if the service is free you just have to expect to wait for it. I’m sorry, that’s just the way it is.” So what she was saying is: tell them to go ahead and sleep under that tree each night and pray they don’t get raped and keep checking into the 211 hotline until they get a bed. My response to this: If I had a loved one who broke down anywhere in America, my daughter for instance, and there wasn’t anywhere for her to stay the night, I would be sick until I knew that she was safe. The “wait for service” line doesn’t work for me. No one should have to sleep outside.

Why should no one have to sleep outside? Simply because the laws in this country make it so that being displaced makes you a criminal. Property laws are such that anyone can be reported to the police and arrested for “trespassing”, “loitering”, and “disturbing the peace” because they are in proximity to a business or residence where neighbors are suspicious.

So here’s what I’m saying: any government that makes the laws such that not having money makes you suspicious, should also provide for people without money so that they can at least exist. That is why things like food stamps, SSI and SSDI, HUD housing,and other assistance are so necessary. When you work among the poor, you begin to realize that so many of them must live on some kind of government assistance simply because they are at a disadvantage in employment and housing. The correctional system, the Veteran Administration, Family Services, Department of Mental Health: all of these entities have way more people as dependents reentering society than our churches and charities can manage. The answer is not to just let these people sink or swim. They have had both hands tied behind their backs and we’re living in a new America where employment has changed.

So what is the answer? There is no one solution. There are many solutions. Cutting food stamps is certainly not a solution. I will say that many churches do not by-in-large believe we’re in a crisis. They don’t seem to get that there are really poor people in this country. Or at least they believe it doesn’t effect them. I think churches need to start teaching the early church practice of the Christ room, where strangers are taken in to church members homes and cared for. But I work enough with pastors and church people to know that they do far more dreaming and talking than actual giving. Not all of them, but a lot of them.

Housing has got to become for affordable and so must transportation. People who are members in a local church should begin to face how difficult it is for people with minimum wage jobs to get by. We should all find it immoral that anyone be encouraged to go into debt in order to grow their credit. Unless we all start living more sensibly and simply each of us are a part of the problem, not the solution.

What can churches do? Spiritual formation involves discipline, and disciplined people is something our country needs. In so far as we teach the Fear of the Lord, the Wisdom of God’s Holy Spirit, the Word of God itself, and we live by it, the injustice in our society will become more and more unconscionable. We can’t let the market decide what humans are worth, we have to go back to God’s Word.

Two things I think Evangelicals should care about are a National Housing Trust Fund and the expansion state to state of Medicaid in anticipation of the Affordable Care Act. That so many are opposed to these means I’m moving against the stream. What else is new?


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Filed under Evangelicals, homeless, homelessness, humanity, Politics

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